Officials in Delaware’s southernmost beach towns could breathe a sigh of relieve early this week, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Monday, May 15, that it had allocated between $15 million and $22 million for replenishment of the beaches in Bethany, South Bethany and Fenwick with about a million cubic yards of stand, starting this fall and to be completed before the 2018 summer season.
Local and state officials and some residents and property owners in the Southern Delaware beach towns have been hoping for some relief for more than a year, after Hurricane Joaquin in the fall of 2015 and winter storm Jonas in January of 2016 delivered a one-two punch to the area’s Atlantic beaches, tearing apart dune crossings, and eroding both the beachfront and the dunes initially constructed by the Corps in 2005.
More than a year ago, Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island officials had been hoping that relief might come sooner, rather than later, when the previously scheduled replenishment for Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach came up in 2016.
On the heels of the two storms, the timing was fortunate for those two towns, but the regular three-year replenishment cycle for the reconstructed beaches had the three southernmost beach towns not on the schedule until 2017, and while they continued to seek — ultimately unsuccessfully — early relief from the Corps in 2016, municipal officials also watched more nor’easters continue to erode their beaches, increasing crowding for summer visitors and even limiting access to the shoreline as dune crossings were again washed away.
The three municipalities had even been a little concerned they might not even get their scheduled replenishment in 2017. The Corps is technically obligated to restore the beaches periodically to their engineered design, through 2055, but that’s entirely dependent on the Corps’ annual budget, which itself is dependent on the federal budget. Each year, officials wait on tenterhooks to see if their anticipated project will be funded.
And with local projects in the crosshairs of budget hawks in Washington, D.C. — including last week’s denial of 99 percent of requested federal disaster relief from the impacts of Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina — Delaware officials had some reason to be concerned about the 2017 replenishment.
But on Monday, U.S Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) joined Nathan Barcomb, acting deputy district engineer for Programs & Project Management for the Corps’ Philadelphia District, and Delaware DNREC Shoreline & Waterway Management Administrator Tony Pratt on the boardwalk in Bethany Beach to officially announce the funding for a 2017 replenishment project to a gathering of mayors, town council members and town managers of the three towns.
The project will once again involve dredging sand from approved offshore borrow areas, which will be pumped through a series of pipes onto the beaches and then graded into a dune and berm template designed to reduce potential damages to infrastructure, businesses and homes.
“What we’ve learned from past storms is that beach replenishment works if we are proactive in protecting our coastline. Our dunes and beaches have stood up to the nastiest storms and protected our homes, businesses, schools and infrastructure,” said Carper, ranking member of the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.
Project will be fully federally funded
Noting that both the state and the nation are “fiscally challenged” and that there is “a lot more demand for projects than money to pay for them,” Carper said he and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation had approached Jo-Ellen Darcy — then-Assistant Army Secretary for Public Works and the head of the Corps’ civil-works program — saying, “I think we know how to do this.”
They sought to tap into funds remaining from the Flood Control & Coastal Emergencies (FCCE) funding for recovery from winter storm Jonas. FCCE funding is designed to help with recovery from damage above the predicted level for a given storm, Pratt noted, and the coastal damage and inland flooding that had been experienced in Southern Delaware was exactly that.
FCCE funding also differs from the regular funding the Corps might use to fund a replenishment project, in that it doesn’t inherently require a funding match from the state or local government. In the case of the 2017 replenishment project in Southern Delaware, that will mean that the project will be 100 percent federal funded, instead of the usual 65/35 federal/state split.
“Our message to you,” Carper said to Corps representatives, “is pretty straightforward: ‘Thank you.’ … Thanks to the Corps and the people of this country, we’re going to have a beautiful stretch of beach when this is done.”
Carper mentioned recent congressional testimony from Pratt, who is also the president of the American Shoreline & Beach Preservation Association.
“He’s a rock star all over the country,” Carper said of Pratt, noting him as a champion for beaches.
“Too often we stand up here the day after a storm and say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ … It’s a happy day,” Pratt said Monday, “and I can’t wait to see some sand on the beach.”
Pratt offered his continued thanks to the state’s General Assembly for funding the state share of the regular replenishments while saying he was grateful that this project would be fully funded by the federal government.
Pratt also took the opportunity to tease Sussex County Councilman George Cole (R-4th), whose district includes Bethany Beach, about “sharing in this wonderful project.” (Sussex County doesn’t directly pay for a share of replenishment costs, unlike Worcester County, Md., does for the beaches of neighboring Ocean City — which will also see its beach replenished this fall — where the Corps pays 53 percent of the cost and the rest is split between the State of Maryland, Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City.)
Pratt further thanked the local officials, noting that the work of many had been responsible for getting the project to the point where it was funded.
South Bethany Mayor Pat Voveris, who was joined at the announcement by Council Members Carol Stevenson and Tim Shaw and new Town Manager Maureen Hartman, said, “Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island beaches will benefit from this most welcomed activity after our summer season. Cost will be covered from Flood Control & Coastal Emergencies (FCCE) funds and not require any participation from the state or our towns.
“We are grateful and appreciative of the collective efforts that have resulted in this planned initiative and continued support of tourism, a most important revenue source to Delaware.”
“Some of our most valuable natural resources we have as a state are our beaches,” U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in a statement issued Monday. “This is welcome news that we will replenish the coastline from Bethany Beach to Fenwick Island, and I would like to thank the work of the Army Corps of Engineers to see that the erosion would be a major problem not just for tourism but the natural habitat.”
“Delaware beaches serve as engines of economic growth and areas of relaxation not just for our state, but for people across the country,” said U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) said in the joint statement. “The welcome news of beach replenishment in Bethany, South Bethany and Fenwick this fall will ensure they maintain the necessary upkeep to prepare for future storms and preserve our miles of pristine coastline.”
Opponents cite concerns over expense, impact on environment
Carper on Monday also acknowledged that beach replenishment remains controversial, with opposition from those who question the repeated expense and the impact of the work on the environment, including those who believe it has created a potentially dangerous shore break along the replenished beaches, leading to more injuries to beachgoers and less desirable conditions for surfers.
“Some people may question why we continue to replenish our beaches,” Carper stated. “Our 21 miles of oceanfront are more than just sand and surf — they generate more than $6.9 billion in coastal tourism annually, employing almost 60,000 people. This is more than 10 percent of Delaware’s workforce. It’s important work that protects not only our community but our economy as well.”
Bethany resident Bethany Powell expressed her opposition to the replenishment this week, commenting on Facebook, “They need to figure out a different solution already. I’m so sick of trying to simply ride a wave and getting my face and head shoved into the sand. One time I felt like my neck was about to break. Why spend all that money and within one-two-three years you’ll be back at the same problem! They need to humble themselves and face the truth.”
Ocean View resident Bruce Mears commented, “Broken, backs, necks and bones return to Bethany for the summer of 2018. … Where are all of the environmentalists that opposed the Rehoboth ocean outfall and are throwing a fit about offshore drilling? Beach replenishment kills marine habitat at the sand borrow area and on the beach.”
Bethany business owner Alex Heidenberger noted, “We are just coming out of nor’easter season. Southern flow has and always will bring the beach size up. Beach replenishment is the biggest hack and waste of money. Also terrible for [the] ecosystem.”
Fellow Bethany business owner Dana Banks said, “Terrible. Let Mother Nature do her thing.”
However, some local residents and visitors this week stated their support for the work. Local resident Joshua Davis expressed his concerns about the impact of a dwindling beachfront, saying, “But have you seen those beaches this year? Bethany is going to lose a lot of revenue because of the small beach. How does O.C. maintain such a big beach every year? I think that’s the questions these lawmakers should be asking.”
Aaron Georgelas commented, “Beach replenishment is a good thing. Imagine how much federal taxes evaporate if these extremely wealthy towns get washed away.”
And Fenwick resident Alex Daly said, “Fenwick Island is fortunate that we are getting this going. I can remember in the 1990s when most of the dunes were washed away and the high tide came within 30 feet of the walkway. No beach at all in mid-summer!”
Despite the controversy, state and local officials this week welcomed the news that their beaches will be replenished this fall, offering the promise of wider sands for visitors in the 2018 summer season and enhanced protection for property and infrastructure along the Southern Delaware coast, all without having to find funding for the work in the state’s already strapped budget.